Tom Blyth had big shoes to fill when he took on the role of Coriolanus Snow in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes. In the film, a prequel to The Hunger Games franchise, Blyth plays a young version of the eventual president of Panem, who was embodied by Donald Sutherland in the first three Hunger Games movies. But Blyth was determined to find a way to make the character his own, creating a thread between the softer, kinder Coriolanus we meet early on and the villain he becomes.
The British actor, best known for playing the lead role in TV series Billy the Kid, spent nearly two months auditioning for the film, directed by Francis Lawrence. He read solo several times and did chemistry reads with various actresses up for the part of Lucy Gray Baird, including Rachel Zegler, who eventually accepted the role.
“I went through a pretty traditional kind of audition process, which is to say it was long and arduous,” Blyth tells Observer. “It was definitely not at a point in my career where anyone was just offering me stuff without auditioning.”
The film (based on Suzanne Collins’ 2020 novel) is set during the 10th annual Hunger Games, held to keep the citizens of Panem in check by the ruling Capitol. Coriolanus, or Coryo, is assigned to mentor Lucy Gray, the tribute from District 12 who is a skilled musical performer. As the events of the games and their dramatic aftermath unfold, Coriolanus shifts his alliances and motivations, eventually becoming more and more manipulative. Blyth’s performance is nuanced and skilled, even in the story’s bigger moments, and the 28-year-old actor is clearly one to watch. Here Blyth talks about playing an established character, connecting to the franchise’s fans and whether there might be a sequel.
What did you find compelling about playing a complicated character like Coriolanus Snow?
It’s the complexity itself that draws me to him. I’ve never been very interested in playing one-dimensional characters. Maybe one day when I’ve played enough enough dark, complex characters, I’ll get bored of it and I’ll want to do something that’s just light and bright and easy. But I was obsessed with with Donald Sutherland’s performance when I was a kid and as a young actor looking at older artists and wanting to emulate them. What I loved that he brought to it was this wryness. He didn’t give too much away, which left you thinking, “How the hell did this guy become so bad?”
For me getting that call years later saying, “Do you want to play him before he’s turned bad?” I was like, “Oh my God, yes.” How could you not want to do that as an actor? I think it’s always for me [about] what is the psychological study that you get to do when you’re performing? And there’s no greater psychological study than looking at a soon-to-be villain and asking the questions of how and why are they becoming that thing.
Did you look at Donald Sutherland’s performance when creating yours or did you have to disregard it?
It’s a tricky one because I don’t think you’d ever want to disregard it. Because not only would that be disrespectful to Donald, it would also be disrespectful to the fans who have a certain understanding of who he is as a character. But this is 64 years before so it allows for some creative freedom to ask yourself as an actor, “Okay, who was he 64 years before? And how does that differ from the tyrant that he is soon to become?” Therein lies the nuance, in that 64-year gap.
For me, it was a matter of where he ends up at the end of the film compared to where he is at the beginning when we first meet him. Those are two vastly different people—I hope that’s what viewers take away from it, anyway. It was tracking the process of Acts One through Three of the movie, of watching him slowly turn into the future president. And so by the end I wanted to try a nod to a little bit more towards Donald’s performance. Or at least to the rhythm and cadence of his inner life and the way he speaks and all of that. Because he is suddenly putting his best foot forward at the end is like a future leader of Panem. He’s definitely more of a snake at the end than he is at the beginning.
At the beginning, I’d say he’s almost more close to Lucy Gray. He’s still got that songbird quality to him. The hope and the looking ahead. But by the end, he’s lost all hope. He now believes that his purpose is to try and control the chaos. That’s more of that Sutherland aspect, which is [about] the slowness and the calculation and the wry, quizzical trying to understand people before they even understand themselves.
Have you met Donald Sutherland?
I’ve not been lucky enough to meet him. I would love to at some point. But we shied away from it while making the film just because there’s always the risk of copying. You can’t recreate a great performance, nor should you try. I think both Francis and I felt that we had to make it our own while still honoring his performance. But now that it’s said and done and it’s out there in the world soon and I don’t have to worry about copying his performance, I would love to meet him and get his blessing.
Did you have a sense that being part of like a big franchise movie like this would change your life and career?
While I was auditioning for it, no, because as a young actor all you’re thinking is, “I really would love a good job right now!” Then the minute you get offered the role—or, at least, this was true for me—you realize that there’s already a built-in fandom and there’s already a certain expectation of what the film is going be. Then, yeah, you can’t help but think, “Oh, God, is this going to bring with it Pandora’s box of things I haven’t even considered?”
It felt like the treasure that I’d been hoping for as an actor for so long. A great story, great filmmakers, a great franchise. What is that going to bring? But so far, I’ve got to say, honestly, all I’ve experienced is positivity. It’s brought opportunity in a great way. I’m getting to meet with filmmakers that I’ve always wanted to work with and have some great stuff in the pipeline. And I’ve been really taken aback by how amazing the fans are. I think I expected to be picked apart by them like buzzards. But it’s been the opposite. It’s been nothing but welcoming and people embracing this new generation of the franchise.
There’s only one prequel novel. But is the idea that there could be more films about young Coriolanus and Lucy Gray?
From all of us, I think there’s hope. I think we all feel this more to tell from these characters’ perspectives. A lot of people want to see whether Lucy Gray and Coryo ever manage to meet each other again and what happens there. Because obviously—no spoilers—what happens in the woods is a big cliffhanger. And between Tigris and Coryo [there is] this really loving relationship. I think people who have seen it are really rooting for those cousins to hold on to each other because it’s them against the world. So I think we all want to see those relationships play out further.
That being said, what I really respect about Francis Lawrence and [producer] Nina Jacobson and Lionsgate is that they don’t just want to keep churning out films for the sake of it. They really do respect the literature and the writing of Suzanne Collins, the creator. If they’re going to make a film it’s going to come from her. It’s going to come from the impetus of her asking another big sociological question and then putting it down on paper. They’re not just trying to build a franchise for the sake of a franchise. Which I, as a filmmaker and creator, really respect. It’s the thing that made me less fearful going into it, like “Yes, I’m making this big thing that has its own wheels and its own machine, but it’s also real filmmaking that comes from the text.”
What surprised you the most about being on the set of a big film production like this?
It’s definitely the biggest set that I’ve ever been on. By far the biggest budget. And yet I think that the real surprise was was that it didn’t feel that big being on the set. Francis runs a set like it’s not a big franchise movie. He runs it like it could be a family drama, or a smaller, more intimate film. I think that comes across in the scenes because you can feel the intimacy of the relationships on the screen. That’s a testament to Francis Lawrence. He really makes everyone feel welcome and makes it feel like you’re part of a family all making the same thing with the same goal in mind. So the biggest surprise was just how not big and how intimate it felt in a good way.
You were on real locations a lot, right?
The whole thing was shot on location. We only had maybe five or six days on a soundstage. Which again, was a surprise. I totally expected the whole thing to be green screens, blue screens, acting opposite tennis balls. And actually, we shot it all on location in Poland and Berlin with a little bit of CGI enhancement to make the world more like Panem. I was amazed by that. It makes everything feel more gritty, more real, more tangible. The locations they chose were amazing. In Berlin there was all this Weimar and neo-brutalist architecture, which gives everything this extra level of of realness and tangibility.
The arena looks exactly how I pictured it when I read the book.
That’s so awesome. I love that. But I also love that for some people, it might not be and creates something that you couldn’t have even imagined. And for some people it totally honors what you what you imagined. For me, that’s the beauty of making a book into a film: It can both meet and test your expectations.
What’s been your most interesting fan encounter so far?
I’m surprised by how many people I meet, on the red carpet or the premieres, who look me in the eye and say that I’m exactly who they imagined when they were reading it. Because I’m not who I imagined when I read it! I read the book and loved it, and I did not imagine myself at all. But the support has been really surprising. [The fans] have been really warm and welcoming. Maybe that’s something about Suzanne Collins and the kind of people who are attracted to her writing. Because although there is a level of young adult dystopian fiction, which could be hammy and corny, but it’s so not that. It’s more philosophical, thinking material that is underpinned by relationships and love stories and all these things that get us excited. It draws people who want to connect to humanity.
What do you have coming up after this?
Right now I’m about to jump back into filming the second half of season two of Billy the Kid for MGM+, which is a cowboy Western show. We got cut short because of the SAG strike. Now that that’s thankfully resolved, we get to go back in a few weeks and finish that. And then I’ve got a few really great film projects next year that are lined up that I probably shouldn’t say anything about just yet. But they’re really exciting and with some really great filmmakers.